Saturday, January 25, 2014

Vegetable Garden Basics

With the mercury hovering around 25 degrees, my thoughts turn to the warmer days ahead. I am refining my garden plan for 2014. If you have not made a plan yet, now is the time, before spring chores eat up most of your gardening time. Your plan need not be elaborate, but it should at least cover three things:

  1. What am I going to plant?
  2. Where am I going to put everything?
  3. What is the best strategy for succession planting? 
Food garden at UT Gardens
Here are some tips for answering these questions. One of the best ways to determine what to plant is to ask the other people in the family. You may think growing salsify would be fun, but your kids may want tomatoes or strawberries. Make a list and let everyone vote. If you are a novice at food gardening, limit yourself to three or four crops until you get the hang of growing those, then branch out. My top four choices are beans, lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. If I could grow only four vegetables, I would grow these, lettuce in spring and fall, and the others as summer crops.

Choosing a site for your vegetable garden can be the most critical decision you make, in terms of success or failure. Of primary importance is sunshine. Veggies need at least six hours of sun a day, and the more sun, the better. Don't locate your food garden in a low-lying spot where water stands for more than a few hours after a heavy rain. No vegetable likes wet feet, although they all need about an inch of water a week. Speaking of which, be sure you can reach your vegetable garden with a hose, or you will be toting water in buckets during high summer. Your soil should be well-drained, moisture retentive and organically rich. Work in composted organic matter in late winter, as soon as you can work the soil. For a small plot, you can buy compost, peat, or pine bark fines to work into the bed. I suggest adding 3 two-cubic-foot bags of this material per 100 square feet of growing bed, unless your soil is already in great shape. Add more each year, and in five years time you will have the best veggie beds on the block. Good soil is the key to great veggies.

Late winter is also a good time to incorporate organic fertilizers into your garden soil. Doing so gives the weather and beneficial bacteria a chance to decompose these materials into a form your plants can use. I add a cup of cottonseed meal per 10 square feet of growing space, along with a similar amount of bone meal and two tablespoons of pelletized dolomitic limestone. (I leave out the lime if I am growing potatoes.) These amendments are best added around the first of February, if you intend to begin planting in March. That allows a month for breakdown to begin. If you determine that plants need more nitrogen later on in the season, I suggest using a balanced organic fertilizer mix available commercially, rather than more slow-release amendments. When plants are really growing the nutrients will not be released fast enough.

I should also say that, although I prefer organic fertilization wherever possible, I see nothing wrong with using a soluble fertilizer, such as Miracle Gro(TM) in order to salvage a crop of veggies. Doing so is less likely to cause harm than allowing the plants to get stressed and attract insect pests.

Regarding succession planting, this is the key to growing a lot of food in a small space. The most important point to remember is that here in the Tennessee Valley, we have three growing seasons. Two cool ones in spring and fall, and a warm to hot season in summer. Once you have your veggie list in hand, divide it into cool season and warm season crops. The most popular warm season crops are beans, corn, cucumbers, okra, peppers, tomatoes and squash. Greens of all types are the easiest cool season crops, including arugula, lettuce, mustards and spinach. The cabbage family also needs cool temperatures, as do green onions and leeks. Plan on growing cool season crops from March 1 to June 1, warm season crops from June 1 to September 1, and cool season crops again around Labor Day. for the ones to be grown from transplants, either plan on purchasing them from a garden center (recommended for beginners) or start seeds about four to six weeks before you will need plants.

When your early crops of greens and scallions are done, remove plant debris and move in the summer crops. When these are up and growing well, fertilize. Start moving in the fall plants as the summer veggies start looking exhausted. Feed the fall crop when all the summer crops are gone and the fall plants are established. 

By following these simple guidelines, you should be able to grow enough food to eat, and perhaps have some extra to can or freeze this summer. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The First Seeds of Spring

Now that the January full moon (and a beautiful one it was with Jupiter beside it) has come and gone, it is time to plant leek and onion seeds. These plants grow slowly when they are young, do well when transplanted, and are universally required in cooking. It therefore makes sense to start a bunch of seeds in January for transplanting about six weeks hence.

We are growing a "generic" leek from Knoxville's own Mayo Seed Company that we have had good success with for years. I sow the seeds rather thickly on the surface of moist grow mix in a 6-inch square plastic pot, cover them with about a quarter inch of vermiculite and water them in. I keep the pot in the garage, and move it under artificial lights as soon as the first seeds break the surface. When the plants are an inch and a half tall, I begin watering with soluble fertilizer once a week. They will need six to eight weeks to reach a suitable size for transplanting, about three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter at the base.

Onions can be started from seed in the same manner. Many gardeners prefer to start bulb onions from sets, but if you want many plants, seed is much cheaper. I will be doing sets this year, for red "summer" onions.

Our overwintered leeks survived the bitter cold of the Polar Vortex without much noticeable damage. This variety, 'King Sieg,' was developed specifically to overwinter from fall planting for the earliest possible spring crop. Last season, they were the best leeks we grew.

It is worth noting that the onion family, in general, is probably the best possible use of your garden space during winter. When spring or summer crops have been cleared, garlic, shallots, perennial onions, leeks and scallions can move in. Leeks can be transplanted any time, although they fare worse during July and August. Scallions will grow throughout the season, but they are at their best in cool weather. Garlic is typically planted in July, shallots in October, and perennial onions in November. Fall planted leeks and onions are transplanted in September for overwintering. All of these crops, with the exception of scallions, keep very well after harvest. Leeks need refrigeration, but garlic, shallots and perennial onions should be stored dry at cool room temperature, about 60 degrees.

Unless you have a coldframe, the month of January offers little in the way of harvest. Parsley usually overwinters and can be picked when it isn't frozen. Some other herbs, like rosemary, struggle along. This is a great time to turn to frozen vegetables from last summer. Here's a recipe for corn pudding that is made from "cream style" corn. That is corn that was scraped, rather than cut, from the cob, producing a mixture of smashed kernels, milky juice, and whole kernels. That is how I prefer to freeze it. You can also use commercially frozen corn, mixed with a small can of cream style corn, for approximately the same effect.

Southern Style Corn Pudding

2 cups frozen cream style kernels from homegrown corn, thawed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
pinch of cayenne pepper or a dash of Tabasco
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an eight-inch baking dish with a teaspoon of the butter, reserving the remainder. Place the thawed corn in the dish and dot with the remaining butter. Drizzle with the cream, distributing it evenly. Sprinkle with the cayenne, salt and pepper. Bake until golden at the edges, about 30 to 40 minutes. Serve hot or warm.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

New Directions for the New Year

I have decided this blog would be more generally helpful if it were more focused. Therefore, in 2014 I plan to fill more space with words about food gardening and cooking, with the emphasis on Southern-style food. Last year friends mourned the passing of John Egerton, a Nashville author who in 1987 produced the first really definitive work on the subject, Southern Food: At home, on the road, and in history. In over 200 restaurant reviews and a similar number of recipes, Egerton sought to explain and explore Southern food in the hope of preserving some of our best traditions for future generations. Throughout this entertaining and well-written narrative, we read the words of cooks and restaurant owners from all over the South, lamenting that "this kind of cooking" is dying out, or that, "not many people do it this way, anymore."

Upon Egerton's well laid groundwork, I hope to spend this year discovering to what extent those predictions have come true, and (hopefully) to learn that not only have the old Southern food traditions not expired, but rather they are, like an elderly maiden aunt when you visit her after a long absence, unexpectedly robust.

Besides re-visiting some of the restaurants that Egerton visited and researching and cooking some of the foods we Southerners treasure, I also plan to spend some time digging up, if you will pardon the pun, information on the vegetable varieties that have traditionally been used to create those memorable Southern dishes. We already know about Hickory King corn and Cherokee Purple tomatoes, but I think it will be fun to explore the flavors of older varieties of peas, okra, and beans, also.

On the recipe front, it is encouraging to note that dozens of Southern-style cookbooks have appeared just in the last three years. If from these we subtract those from Emeril, Paula, Duck Dynasty, Southern Living and similar celebrity authors, we are left with a remarkable selection of serious work about serious Southern food. Rather than dying out, it would appear that our distinctive regional cuisine is more widely popular than ever.

With gardeners and farmers here in the Tennessee Valley and throughout the South becoming ever more skilled and successful at growing food, we are in a great position to lead a "return to the roots of Southern food" movement. In future posts, I will talk about cooking some of the recipes I have found in my research, and about growing some heirloom vegetable varieties in my garden this year.

Here is a list of a few of the great new Southern cookbooks published in the last two years, and some that are coming out this year.

Vienneau, Nancy (2014) The Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook: Recipes and Stories to Celebrate the Bounty of the Moment. Thomas Nelson.
Gabriel, Johnnie (2014) How to Cook Like a Southerner: Classic Recipes from the South's Best Down-Home Cooks. Thomas Nelson.
van Beuren, Alexe and Dixie Grimes. (2014)  The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from a Southern Revival. Crown Publishing Group.
Little, Stacey. (2014) The Southern Bite Cookbook: 150 Irresistible Dishes from 4 Generations of My Family's Kitchen. Thomas Nelson.
Link, Donald and Paula Disbrowe. (2014) Down South: Bourbon, Pork, Gulf Shrimp & Second Helpings of Everything. Crown Publishing Group.
Fowler, Damon Lee (2013) Essentials of Southern Cooking: Techniques and Flavors of a Classic American Cuisine. The Lyons Press.
Currence, John. (2013) Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some. Andrews McMeel.
Randolph, Mary. (2013) The Virginia Housewife: Or, Methodical Cook. Reprint of an 1824 volume considered to be the first Southern cookbook. Andrews McMeel.
Van Dyke, Louis and Billie Van Dyke (2013) The Blue Willow Inn Bible of Southern Cooking: 450 Essential Recipes Southerners Have Enjoyed for Generations. Thomas Nelson.
Walsh, Robb (2013) Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey. Austin, University of Texas Press.
Tolley, Lynne and Mindy Merrell. (2012) Jack Daniel's Cookbook: Stories and Kitchen Secrets from Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House. Thomas Nelson.
Dupree, Nathalie  and Cynthia Graubart (2012) Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking. Smith, Gibbs Publisher.
Beall, Sam. (2012) The Foothills Cuisine of Blackberry Farm: Recipes and Wisdom from Our Artisans, Chefs, and Smoky Mountain Ancestors. Crown Publishing Group.
Thompson, Fred. (2012) Fred Thompson’s Southern Sides: 250 Dishes That Really Make the Plate. Greensboro, The University of North Carolina Press.
Fox, Minnie C. (2012) The Blue Grass Cook Book. (Reprint of 1904 edition). University Press of Kentucky.
Caldwell, Patsy and Amy Lyles Wilson. (2012) You Be Sweet: Sharing Your Heart One Down-Home Dessert at a Time. Thomas Nelson.
Savor the South Cookbook Series, University of North Carolina Press, Okra (2014), Pickles and Preserves (2014), Bourbon (2013), Biscuits (2013),  Peaches (2013), Tomatoes (2013), Pecans (2012), Buttermilk (2012).

All of the above titles are hardcover releases. Some may also be available in other formats. Books with less comprehensive coverage tend to be released in digital format only these days. One e-book that readers may want to explore is this one:

Kellner, Hank. (2013) The Taste of Appalachia: A Collection of Traditional Recipes Still in Use Today. Smashwords.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Garden Season Begins

No kidding. The 2014 gardening season has already begun. Seed catalogs appear in mailboxes and inboxes, and despite the howling cold wind outside, some people will be starting plants this month.

If you have a small greenhouse or an indoor space with plenty of light, some of the vegetable seeds that should be started later this month include globe artichoke, celery, leeks, and onions. Cool weather ornamentals, such as snapdragon and stock, should also be seeded now. All of these are slow-growing as seedlings, and all need to be ready to transplant by March. Just remember you will need enough room to accommodate the plants as they grow. I have made the mistake of starting too many seeds more than once, and then run out of room to grow them to transplant size. If you find yourself in this situation, one remedy is to move everything outdoors during the day, as long as the temperature is high enough, and then bring everything back in before dark.

I look forward to receiving the catalog from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange every year. While I rely on Knoxville's own Mayo Seed Company for many old stand-by vegetable varieties, I choose most of the seeds for heirloom varieties from Southern Exposure. The company also has a seed rack at Three Rivers Market, for those who prefer to browse in person.

Several varieties have captured my interest this year. Here is a brief rundown.

Greasy Beans--Although several varieties are not available this year, the ones that are should be worth a try. 'Cherokee Greasy' is best as a dried bean, while 'Red-Striped Greasy' can be used green or dry. Both are pole beans. "Greasy" beans lack hairs on the pod, giving them a shiny, slippery look. They keep much longer after harvest than most other beans, allowing you to accumulate a "mess" of beans over several days, if you only have room for one or two vines. The flavor is excellent. Greasy beans may also be available from Mayo.

Cabbage 'Savoy Perfection'--This is an excellent cold-weather cabbage. I am experimenting this year with overwintering a couple of plants. The idea is for them to form heads for an early March crop. It grows well as a fall cabbage, also, and the heads are almost too pretty to harvest.

Open-Pollinated Corn--If you want to taste what "real" sweet corn used to taste like, you'll have to grow these varieties that have not had their genes tinkered with by plant breeders. Two that caught my eye are 'Country Gentleman,' in which the kernels are arranged randomly, rather than in rows, and 'Golden Bantam,' an old Burpee introduction that bears well on small plants that can be closely spaced. With either of these, however, the window for harvesting at the milk stage is very narrow. These are the types of corn that inspired the old saying, "Have the water boiling on the stove before you go out to the garden to harvest corn on the cob."

Greens--Seems like Southern Exposure constantly expands their offerings of greens. Cress, kale, mustards, Swiss chard, and more for the greens lover. Many greens are great cool to cold weather crops for the Tennessee Valley. I plan to harvest 'Lacinato' kale from an outdoor bed this afternoon, as soon as the leaves thaw. Of particular note, "Winter Bloomsdale' spinach, which has been unavailable for a while, is back.

Okra--Another veggie where the selection of heirlooms seems ever-expanding. For those with limited space, try 'Lee,' a 1978 release from the University of Arkansas that bears well on 5-foot plants. You might also want to consider one of several red-podded varieties. The contrasting color makes them harder to miss when picking. Leaving pods on the plant to mature reduces production.

'Polecat' Pea from Southern Exposure
Southern Peas--Depending upon where you live, these may be called cowpeas, crowder peas, field peas, or black-eyed peas. They are actually not native to the Americas, like regular garden beans, but made there way here from Asia via Africans who were brought here against their will. Well-adapted to warm southern summers, the numerous varieties of southern peas result from four hundred years of selection. In some cases, as with 'Piggott Pea,' the family who developed the strain kept it to themselves for most of its history. The ability of southern peas to thrive in poor soil (red clay!) is remarkable.

Squash--If your zucchini is plagued by squash borers, try growing butternut winter squash instead. The borers leave it alone. Three varieties to investigate are 'Burpee's Butternut' (bush), 'Tahitian Melon,' and 'Waltham Butternut,' the latter two both vining types that need plenty of room to run or a sturdy trellis.

Tomatoes--For tomato enthusiasts, Southern Exposure offers nine pages of listings. Have fun, but bear in mind that heirloom tomatoes may not be as productive or as easy to grow as hybrid varieties with multiple disease resistance. Every time I grow heirlooms, I have some successes and some failures.

Those are the high points, but I have barely scratched the surface of this one catalog. Many more will soon arrive, each with some irresistible new seed to tempt me. Perusing them is a great way to spend time while the outdoors is in the deep freeze.